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Thursday, July 14, 2011

HAKUCHI / THE IDIOT (1951)

Akira Kurosawa had no luck with his up-dated Dostoevsky adaptation. Completed in two Parts at a whopping 4½ hours, his original cut was never released and the studio print at near 3 is choppy with many scenes ending abruptly with jarring ‘optical wipes.’ International releases were clipped even further, but nothing helped, commercially or critically. That’s when, according to Kurosawa in his autobio, RASHOMON/’50 opened to sensational effect on the international market, saving his career. You’ll see why this one tanked, but it’s not without interest. The story seems a tiresome affair here, especially with Masayuki Mori too much the Milquetoast as the ‘Idiot’ (Prince Myshkin in the novel) whose fragile mental state make him too good, too saintlike, too pure of heart to enjoy the normal comforts of society. He’d rather ‘save’ a bad woman then love a deserving young beauty. Or is it the other way ‘round? Kurosawa circles this problem endlessly. And there are three more suitors: a bad man, a greedy man and a rich sensualist, also involved. And the women are just as conflicted, needy & variable. Should you give yourself to the one you love?; the one who deserves you?; the one who needs you?; the one you don’t love so you can save the one you . . . Oh, good grief! Those Russians! Er . . . Japanese. Boiling down Dostoevsky to plot mechanics does the man no favors! What matters is that Kurosawa seems unable to get inside these characters and winds up repeating actions hoping for depth. And damned if he doesn’t get it . . . after half the movie has passed. The themes pull into focus, the extraneous elements vanish and the film gathers power. Especially from Toshiro Mifune as the 'bad' suitor who loves not wisely, but too well. He overacts something awful for much of the film, but when his big confession shows up . . . look out! He’s already revving up for next year’s Macbeth in Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD, a far happier adaptation of a Western classic.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There are Russian & French versions of the story, but no DVDs. Hopefully, the French version from 1946 (once available on a Region 2 DVD) will show up since it stars the young Gérard Philipe, plus-perfect casting as Myshkin.

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